“Getting Excited by the Writing & Wanting More of It”: Ralph Wessman recalls 25 years as editor and publisher of ‘famous reporter’.

Shortly before the launch of famous reporter 43 in late May I asked Ralph Wessman, the founder and long time editor of the magazine, for some background information on the magazine. At the time my intention was to include this in a review of the final issue of famous reporter that he was going edit (the very final issue, No. 44, will be edited by Michael Sharkey and Dael Allison). What he sent me, however, was a detailed personal account of the history of famous reporter. In my view it would be a crime not to publish his account in full – so here (with a few minor edits) is Ralph Wessman on the 25 years he has spent publishing and editing the famous reporter…..

The cover of issue 1 of the famous reporter.

I remember a conversation with Philip Mead some years ago where I tried to explain to him that my magazine was like an extension of myself – like being blessed with another arm if you want to put it in a physical context though that’s not what I meant – and Philip nodded in agreement and more importantly, understanding. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised but I’d forgotten at the time that Philip had been an editor himself – of Meanjin.

At other times I used to say that with my magazine I’d found a place to park my head.

The beginning

I had no idea what I was doing when I began The Famous Reporter, although I’d taken a small publishing step with a small newsletter distributed free throughout St Kilda – St Kilda Beat – for three years. Then a friend established a literary journal, On the Off Beat, a magazine of women’s short stories. The editor had the advantage of working with a printer, so it was a case of satisfying an aesthetic urge while on the job. I liked the results, I was both interested, and encouraged, I have to admit, to have a go at it too.

So I did …and began with my ex wife a short story magazine. In 1986 I sent off letters to writing groups and universities around the country seeking material and early in 1987 we had enough material for an issue that we typed up on our old typewriter at home. Ambitious, we had no idea of the practicalities of producing a magazine.

We had problems finding a name, famous reporter as a name doesn’t do much for me these days but it’s too late to change it. Shane McCauley – a West Australian poet I’m in touch with – once said that he didn’t bother submitting to famous reporter for years and years because he was under the impression it was a magazine publishing material in the crime genre.

We began by publishing 500 copies for the first couple of issues; I guess a lack of knowledge is a dangerous thing, offset by possibility of making the thing work. I’ve never sold 500 copies of an issue of famous reporter, a couple of hundred copies is the norm.

Issue 2.

I had little knowledge of Australian literature other than as a general reader, so for the first three issues the magazine we published only short stories. It wasn’t until the fourth issue that we began experimenting with other material – in that issue there were not one but three interviews – with John Tranter (http://www.the-write-stuff.com.au/archives/vol-8/tranter.html), Mary Blackwood (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR4Blackwood.html) and Georgia Savage (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR4Savage.html). Issue five saw a further three interviews this time with Hilarie Lindsay, Chris Mansell (http://walleahpress.com.au/Int-Mansell.html) and Garry Disher (http://walleahpress.com.au/Int-Disher.html). Issue 5 also contained the first couple of poems appeared in the magazine, the first by Sue Moss (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR5Moss.html), something I’d heard her reading in at an event Battery Point & the first piece of poetry I actively sought out. ‘I’ve’ dined out on that story’, Sue’s told me since. The other came courtesy of a wonderful public talk that Libby Hathorn gave in 1990 which she allowed me to use – and illustrating her conversation was a poem.

Of course more poetry – more poetry contributors – appear in the magazine now than anything else. I’m interested in poetry, fiction, essays, reviews and haiku. Arts Tasmania has funded the magazine since 1994, so we’ve been able to offer a little money to contributors

The launch for FR43 was held on Wednesday 30th May in Hobart. Usually a decent crowd turns up to famous reporter launches in Hobart, anything from thirty to ninety – but it’s different on the mainland. We’ve had launches in places including Melbourne, Adelaide – twice – Sydney, Newcastle [that was lovely] and the Blue Mountains. But the first time in Adelaide, when I took my son Jazz along with me, he was twelve at the time was interesting. I remember how Graham Rowlands and I tried lots of promotion, but on the night there were seventeen of us who turned up, including Jazz and me. However I tried Adelaide several years later, and had a great time, taking my other son Noah with me, a mad keen Aussie Rules supporter so holding a launch & taking my son to the footy was killing two birds with the one stone. We had an audience of thirty-five or so that night in Adelaide, and I managed to put to rest something that had been holding me back for years – my awe of Jan Owen. I’d been in awe of her poetry for years and I’d often think when a poetry submission turned up in the mail from Jan, why me? Why am I blessed? But I invited her along to the launch and she turned up and put me at ease so quickly, from memory it was along the lines of: “like your magazine Ralph, enjoying your launch, don’t particularly care one way or the other about your footy team tomorrow night but if that’s your bent so be it “… yes it was a very good launch for more reasons than one.

But you never know how they will go, which is why it’s not a bad thing to do to have a launch as part of a reading programme put on by local writer’s groups, which is what [haiku editor] Lyn Reeves and I did with the magazine in Byron Bay some years ago. It was the Christmas function for the writing group Dangerously Poetic, at Bangalow just a little outside of Byron Bay. And we had a dozen readers, people we’ve met along the way as both Lyn and I have strong links with the area, and we had an audience of over eighty people and we had a fine time.

The reasons for one’s involvement with a literary magazine.

I am somewhat moved by Ken Bolton’s argument, the premise that a magazine renews itself, its vitality, by finding a course and sticking with it through thick and thin on a particular aesthetic, political [whatever] direction. This is the opposite of the eclectic magazine, the opposite of something like famous reporter. I’m somewhat persuaded by Ken’s arguments, I admit. But then I look at what is possible with a magazine such as Meanjin which often used to focus on thematic pieces … This is a danger, of course, if you take on a topic which has little appeal. But over the years, in my opion, Meanjin has managed to publish exciting writers speaking on a range of issues, resulting in eminently readable and successful issues of the magazine. So yes, I feel the eclectic magazine has something to offer.

I don’t see that FR set out to ‘change anything’, it’s a case of simply getting excited by the writing and wanting more of it. There are various styles of magazine, some accept contributions only by invitation. I’ve gone the other way and accept through submissions and seek out the occasional article that I seek out, I do this particularly with reviews. The result is an eclectic magazine. That’s not to say that I don’t seek to question, what would be the point of writing if it didn’t?

Mistakes

Invariably you make mistakes. Would the process be worthwhile if there wasn’t the possibility for making mistakes, the possibility of scaring yourself silly by what you’re about to write or publish next….

  • interviewing Mary Blackwood for the magazine and losing the tape I’d made of it and having to return to interview Mary for the second time.
  • issue three, I typed it up in a computer software package but for some reason experienced difficulty getting the magazine to do exactly what I wanted so reinstalled the software package, thinking it would reinstall alongside the old one and I could copy my files across, I was horrified to find it installed over the old one and I lost my complete magazine, had to start again. I hadn’t saved any of the stories into word, simply typed them straight into the package.
  • Another terrible moment was the day Kris Hemensley, of Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne, telephoned to say that he’d just received his copy of famous reporter in which I’d published a launch speech he’d made in Melbourne some weeks before for a Melbourne literary magazine, Salt-Lick. I’d sent Kris a proof copy of the speech before publication, he’d duly made a few changes only to find to his dismay that, on publication, the mistakes remained. I’d made the changes, but used the wrong version of the speech. This was compounded by the fact I’d be meeting Kris face to face in a week’s time when he was due to launch my own magazine.

The lovely moments

  • One of the lovely things is that every six months Lyn Reeves sends me the pages of haiku to go into the next issue, with the bio details of each contributor. I don’t have to lift a finger throughout the whole process, I think it says something for the possibilities for literary and publishing collaborations.
  • The time I interviewed Richard Flanagan and Pete Hay in my small South Hobart flat. Towards the end of the end of the interview I had to leave for the gents, when I returned I found Pete and Richard  still chatting, the tape recorder still rolling. I didn’t transcribe the tape till two weeks later to hear Richard telling Pete he’d won the 1995 Victorian Premier’s Award for his novel Death of a River Guide. ‘But you’re sworn to secrecy till October 20th Pete’, Flanagan went on. I suppose by implication I was sworn to secrecy too, it was a special moment.
  • Anna Bianke: one of the interesting things for me was that when I began the magazine I’d get a rush of excitement when a piece of writing came in from someone whose name I knew, and particularly, of course, if they were someone whose writing I respected. Well one day in the mailbox arrived a short story manuscript from Anna Bianke, of Launceston, and I was familiar with Anna’s work because I’d read several of her pieces in Overland. In fact her name was emblazoned across the front cover of Overland 101. You might remember, if you enjoy your magazines, that Stephen Murray-Smith who was editor of Overland at the time published a 100th commemorative issue, but found himself with so much exciting material that he the 101st issue became a commemorative issue as well, big and fat with lots of good reading. So the arrival of Anna’s manuscript meant quite a lot to me, and her story read with a delicate light touch, it was a beautiful piece of writing and I felt so proud to be able to publish and I suppose to some extent, to feel as if I really was some part of that great fraternity of Australian writing. It wasn’t until some years and perhaps some pieces of writing later, that Anna dropped me a line with an apology and an admission that for years she’d hid behind a pseudonym and that she wasn’t Anna Bianke of Launceston at all, but Stella Kent – playwright and fiction writer – of Launceston. And I’m pleased to say that my publishing relationship with Stella continues … only two or three weeks ago, she sent me an unpublished manuscript she’d come across, a poetry manuscript written by two young Northern Tasmanian students that simply blew her away … she wondered if any might interest me. ‘And if not,’ she added, ‘simply throw it away’. How wonderful is that, when someone with an eye for good writing takes the time to mail along something that moves them, how much simpler does an editor’s job become?
  • I think one of my highlights was to publish Pete Hay’s collection of essays some years back, Vandiemonian Essays. I’m a strong admirer of Pete and his work and it was an honour to be able to publish his book, just as it was to follow up with a collection of his poems three years later. There were 180 to 190 people at the launch of his book of essays – and what a launch it was! We sold 90 copies of the book at $20 each, I’d known there’d too many people in attendance to be able to cater for normally as I do with a famous reporter launch –  that is spend a couple of hundred dollars on light food, softdrink and wine – so I bought about five hundred dollars of various drinks – stubbies of beer, stout, softdrink – and sold them for cost price – and it was just so phenomenally successful.

And to the present?

I like the idea of continuing to publish. I’ve been using Lightning Source in Melbourne, a company with offices in the US, France and the UK and which set up in Melbourne last year. If you do the set up yourself, and provide your book in Indesign and with a cover that’s been Photoshopped – you can manage to publish relatively cheaply, so I’m giving it a go.

I’ve let my enthusiasm carry me away again and taken on probably a bit too much to chew, nevertheless I’m looking at producing several books later in the year, individual poetry books by four local writers – Philomena van Rijswijk, Anne Kellas, Susan Austin, and Cameron Hindrum. A book by Jill Jones, and a joint effort from Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow The Jones and Curnow/Brophy books are planned for August and to be available at the Queensland Poetry Festival where both Jill and Nathan are on the programme.

And once I’ve managed to fulfil the promises and half promises of my initial enthusiasm, I might slow down a bit and look a little more closely at the possibilities of wider publishing, of essays for instance.  And try to come to grips a little more with Dreamweaver and cascading style sheets so I can better promote and present the work of the writers I’m dealing with.

 – Ralph Wessman

A letter from Ralph I found inside my copy of issue 3.

————————————————————————————————

Ralph Wessman was the founding editor of the famous reporter and has been editor or co-editor of the last 43 issues of the magazine. He also runs Walleah Press whose latest publications include Fairweather’s Raft by Dael Allison and Undercover of Lightness by Andrew Burke. http://walleahpress.com.au.

The 44th and final issue of FR will appear late in 2012, edited by Michael Sharkey and Dael Allison. Unsolicited material (with the exception of haiku, which will not appear in FR44) is welcome, to:

PO Box 368
North Hobart
Tasmania 7002 Australia.

4 thoughts on ““Getting Excited by the Writing & Wanting More of It”: Ralph Wessman recalls 25 years as editor and publisher of ‘famous reporter’.

  1. I’ve always loved this magazine. I once described it as “intensely interested” which I think sums up why the copies are always opened with savour.

  2. Ralph is a remarkable editor and a generous promoter of Australian literature. Ralph, thanks for the great job you did on the production of ‘Uncover of Lightness’. May Walleah continue to shine!

  3. Pingback: Issue 4: May – August 2012 Contents | Rochford Street Review

  4. Pingback: An eclectic tour de force: Mark Roberts reviews Famous Reporter 43 | Rochford Street Review

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